Movies to See Before You Die: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”
Few Hollywood stars burned with a brighter intensity than Marilyn Monroe, one of a handful of Hollywood icons whose legend endures largely due an enduring interest in her style, her dramatic personal life, and her tragically young death rather than her actual films. Everyone knows who Marilyn Monroe is; far fewer have seen more than a couple of her films, if that.
Her assumed on-screen persona is the quintessential dumb blonde, an airhead ditz who gets by on sex appeal she barely even understands, to the point that many assume that’s who Monroe was off-screen as well. She certainly had her issues (among them, she was chronically late and unprepared, largely because of stage fright and insecurity), but being dumb was not one of them, nor is it as much of a hallmark of her on-screen characters as you’d suppose. Exhibit A: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn plays a character who is playing a dumb blonde.
Mr. Esmond Sr.: Say, they told me you were stupid! You don’t sound stupid to me!
Lorelei Lee: I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.
In addition to being a great showcase for Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a delightful film on its own terms, filled to the brim with memorable dialogue and great moments not only for Monroe, but for co-star Jane Russell, who plays the knowing, sarcastic straight woman to Monroe’s breathless sex kitten. They’re a pair of showgirls, Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell), who take a transatlantic trip from New York to Paris for a gig. Lorelei leaves her sugar daddy fiance behind, but she doesn’t know that his father has hired a detective to catch her in any unseemly situations – and, believe me, Lorelei has a knack for getting into unseemly situations.
Dorothy is along as a chaperone, but as she says, “nobody chaperones the chaperone,” and she immediately takes a shine to the Olympic team traveling on the ship with them. Ultimately, though, it’s the detective who catches Dorothy’s eye (still incognito), while Lorelei spends her time with Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman (Charles Coburn) and his wife’s diamond tiara. That gets you to about halfway through the movie – the rest you can find out on your own, but trust me, it’s a great ride. Okay, one more enticing tidbit. At one point, Dorothy has to pretend to be Lorelei in a courtroom. It’s amazing.
Jane Russell actually gets top billing on the film – by 1953, she had been in the business for ten years, starting with the controversial Howard Hughes vehicle The Outlaw (co-directed by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes director Howard Hawks, uncredited), which had been filmed in 1941 but wasn’t released until 1943 due to censorship issues surrounding Russell’s prodigious assets. She triumphed in the two Paleface films with Bob Hope, matching the comedian quip for sardonic quip. Monoe, on the other hand, had only graduated to starring roles the previous year, after several years of rising through the ranks of bit and supporting parts.
Monroe’s sudden rise to fame in 1952 began with what could easily have been a career-ending scandal – nude photos she had taken as a young model in 1949 surfaced and people recognized the anonymous girl as Monroe. Instead of cover it up or deny it, Monroe simply admitted to the press that she, a struggling young actress, had needed the job to pay her rent. Thankfully for her and 20th Century-Fox (where she was under contract), the public sympathized with her story and the resulting publicity helped catapulted her into stardom. One of the photos was later featured in the first issue of Playboy in December 1953, which didn’t hurt that magazine’s launch at all either.
In 1952, Monroe had supporting roles in three films and her first lead in Don’t Bother to Knock, followed by a lead in suspenser Niagara in 1953. She didn’t get great reviews in most of these films (comments about her supporting role in Clash by Night were quite positive), but it was clear she had something, even if the films she was in were lacking.
20th Century-Fox originally intended Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a vehicle for Betty Grable, but with the new-found popularity of Monroe (and her much cheaper price tag), they opted to put her in it instead. (Grable and Monroe would costar alongside Lauren Bacall in How to Marry a Millionaire, which might as well be this film’s alternate title, later the same year.) The film was based on a musical show that opened on Broadway in 1949 starring Carol Channing, which was in turn based on a 1925 novel by Anita Loos.
Let’s just say that each adaptation changed the story quite a bit, and though I admit to not having read the novel or seen the play myself, the changes made for the movie are all things I love about it. For example, in the novel and play there’s a character named Henry Spofford III, a rich industrialist who Lorelei falls for and, in the book, marries. Henry Spofford III is in the movie version – but he’s about 10 years old, which is a fantastic joke on Lorelei.
Though Lorelei does go a little overboard for Piggy’s tiara (and ends up getting in a lot of trouble for it), she’s actually completely faithful to her fiance Gus throughout the movie. She spends most of her energy trying to get better beaus for Dorothy, since Dorothy keeps falling in love with poor men. Lorelei is an unabashed gold digger, but she has an explanation: “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” When you put it like that… The film highlights some double standards in male-female relationships in subtle and hilarious ways, while both solidifying and undermining Monroe’s own persona.
Dorothy’s just fine with her existing love life, but doesn’t judge Lorelei except with her witty one-liners.
Lorelei: You must think I was born yesterday.
Dorothy: Well, sometimes there’s just no other possible explanation.
Russell delivers all her lines with perfect comic timing and pairs them with expressions that pretty much steal every scene right out from under Monroe herself. The close relationship Dorothy and Lorelei have extended off-screen to an extent as well – though Monroe and Russell didn’t appear to continue a friendship off screen, they both spoke warmly of each other, and Russell protected Monroe off-screen as well, covering for her late arrivals to set and helping her overcome her stage fright and get in front of the camera.
Though we remember both women more as comediennes and dramatic actresses today, this is a musical, and they’ve got to hold their own both singing and dancing. Both of them actually had some amount of experience with singing – nearly all of Monroe’s movies had her singing at least one song, even the dramas, and she also recorded several singles for RCA in the mid-1950s.
Russell tried out a musical career briefly in the mid-1940s, singing with the Kay Kyser Orchestra and pressing an LP and some singles, including “Kisses and Tears” with Frank Sinatra in 1950. She also reprised Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows” in Son of Paleface, playing a sultry and sassy saloon singer. Neither of them fit the mold of musical stars of the 1940s and 1950s, but that makes their numbers in this film feel surprisingly fresh and unusual if you’re used to Gene Kelly and Jane Powell.
It’s also an unusual film for director Howard Hawks. Hawks is today considered one of the greatest of the Hollywood studio auteurs, turning out iconic films in almost every genre – screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), western (Red River, Rio Bravo), gangster (Scarface), war drama (Sergeant York), film noir (The Big Sleep), etc. As an auteur, he’s noted for his treatment of professionalism – he often focused on the dynamics and ethics of people in very specific and well-defined professions, like journalists, cowboys, pilots, soldiers, detectives, and gangsters.
His films usually focus on men and male groups, or the ways that women can cross into traditionally male groups through unusual (often professional) means. So here we have a musical, focused on the dynamics of showgirls, with female buddies rather than male ones. It’s a feminized, glamorized world, but it is still very much about how women manage in a world of men. For Hawks fans, it’s a really interesting way to see some of his typical concerns play out in an almost gender-reversed way.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge hit when it was released in August, 1953, earning back more than double its budget. The release was celebrated by Monroe and Russell making their mark at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, putting their hand and footprints together in a slab also marked “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The film is thus immortalized in concrete, right along with Marilyn Monroe herself. That alone might not be enough to make it a Movie to See Before You Die, but its wonderful performances, delightful script, and sly way of dealing with gender dynamics do.
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